Last week the Bureau of Land Management sent out a press release requesting applications for research proposals to develop new or improve existing ways of controlling the population growth of wild horses and burros that roam public lands in the West. The request follows a controversial internal memo that calls for “drastic changes” to the decades-old roundup policy that BLM Wild Horse and Burro Division Chief Joan Guilfoyle said could be setting rangeland improvement goals in the United States back 20 years.
While the research request stems from a recent study of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), according to the release, the internal memo paints a more daunting picture—one that most producers in BLM program areas are well aware of. And it appears that BLM’s Guilfoyle is in agreement.
Head of the government’s $70 million wild horse management program, Guilfoyle fears the program may be headed for financial collapse.
With more than 49,000 mustangs in long- and short-term holding pens, Guilfoyle recommended suspending all roundups until thousands of mustangs currently in federal corrals are sold or adopted. In addition, the open-range population doubles every four years and is expected to be more than 60,000 by 2015.
With government budget cuts, growing feed and care costs, and the ever present drought conditions, drastic measures appear to be under consideration. For the last fiscal year, holding costs for the wild horses topped $46 million—61 percent of the horse program’s overall budget.
“Drastic changes in course are mandatory to remain financially solvent and reverse trends,” Guilfoyle wrote in the August memo to Greg Shoop, Assistant Director for Renewable Resources and Planning.
Guilfoyle said sterilization should be considered, and even went as far as recommending euthanizing horses “as an act of mercy if animals decline to neardeath condition as a result of declining water and forage resources.”
The program is “nearing the point of financial insolvency due to undesirable trends in every aspect of the program,” she wrote.
Labeled an “Internal Working Document,” the Texas-based Wild Horse Freedom Federation obtained the memo under the Free dom of Information Act and recently posted it on its website.
The memo, adding validation to the growing frustration felt from landowners and fueling the ever present controversy from wild horse and animal rights activists, found its way to the public following lawsuit discussions over the mismanagement of the program.
In December, the Nevada Association of Counties (NACO) and the Nevada Farm Bureau Federation filed a complaint in U.S. District Court in Reno, claiming that their populations have grossly exceeded appropriate management levels.
The lawsuit claims mismanagement has led to an overpopulation of the mustangs on public lands at the expense of the range and the animals themselves.
“Wild horse overpopulation ates serious environmental concerns for horses, wildlife, and ecology of rangelands, and creates both direct and indirect economic impacts,” NACO said in a statement.
“Loss of use of public lands, as well as the cost of services associated with the health and safety impacts created by the overpopulation of wild horses and burros, decreases tax revenues and yet increases the costs that counties must bear.”
NACO President Jeff Fontaine said the group expects total costs of the lawsuit to reach about $90,000.
The lawsuit asks the court to require the U.S. Interior Department to gather all excess animals on public lands, conduct regular counts, cease interfering with water rights, follow multiple-use principals, and remove horses from long-term holding facilities to instead “auction, sell and otherwise properly dispose of such animals in accordance with the (Wild Horse and Burro) Act.”
But the lawsuits from activists seem to prevail. In February, the U.S. Forest Service agreed to cancel plans to remove 198 wild horses in the Monte Cristo Wild Horse Territory in eastern Nevada in exchange for being dismissed as a defendant from the federal lawsuit filed by the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign, the Western Watersheds Project and The Cloud Foundation, the groups announced.
The removal of wild horses from the Monte Cristo area was part of the BLM’s Pancake Complex roundup plan, which outlines a management strategy to remove 800- 1,000 wild horses from the 855,000-acre public land complex every two to three years over the next six to 10 years.
According to the groups involved in the lawsuit, the litigation also prompted the BLM to agree to postpone plans to castrate up to 200 wild free-roaming stallions and remove all wild horses from the Jakes Wash Herd Management Area in the Pancake Complex.
“The Forest Service’s decision to withdraw from the BLM’s ill-conceived Pancake Complex roundup is further proof that the removal of these horses is unnecessary,” said Suzanne Roy, Director of the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign. “We call upon the federal government to stop removing horses from our public lands and to instead humanely manage them on the range by reducing livestock grazing in wild horse habitat areas and by utilizing PZP fertility control when necessary to control wild horse and burro reproduction.”
But BLM appears to be dedicated to finding a solution, which will no doubt be a daunting task.
“We remain committed to making substantial improvements to the national Wild Horse and Burro Program and we know that some of the best ideas for effective contraception techniques will come from veterinarians, scientists, universities, pharmaceutical companies and other researchers outside of the BLM,” said Guilfoyle. “The development and use of more effective methods to reduce population growth rates will lessen the need to remove animals from the range and improve the health of public rangelands, conserve wildlife habitat, and save taxpayers money.”
The BLM has issued a Request for Applications (RFA) to alert veterinarians, scientists, universities, pharmaceutical companies and other researchers of the BLM’s need to develop new, innovative techniques and protocols for implementing population growth-suppression methods. Specifically, the BLM is interested in finding experts to develop new or refine current techniques and protocols for either contraception or the spaying/neutering of onrange male and female wild horses and burros. The methods may be surgical, chemical, pharmaceutical or mechanical (such as intrauterine devices). The submission deadline for applications is May 7, 2014.
President Barack Obama’s proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2015 includes $80.2 million for the BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro Program, a $2.8 million increase over the FY 2014 level. The additional funds will focus on research of population control methods.
The link to the solicitation can be found at: http://www. grants.gov/web/grants/ search-grants.html? keywords=wild horse (The funding opportunity number is L14AS00048 .) — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor